Learning Lessons the Hard Way: Elphinston Buttress on Picture Peak

On Wednsay evening Chris W. and I hiked to Hungry Packer Lake from Lake Sabrina, to climb the Elphinston Buttress (IV 5.10) on Picture Peak.  This route, and the entire drainage of Lake Sabrina, doesn't see the same traffic as nearby North Lake or South Lake, and I think it deserves more.  We reached our bivy spot in only 2:45, and set our alarms for 4:30am.

Chris hiking up the incredible stonework to Hungry Packer Lake; crossing the creek at Dingleberry Lake; Picture Peak - Elphinston Buttress follows the thin edge visible in the middle of the face.
We left camp at 5:15am, and hiked around the west side of the lake.  Crossing a 4th class granite dome, we found the most peculiar rap anchor - a length of rebar hammered into a crack vertically, then slung with some old, tattered 1" webbing.

The warm temps overnight had kept the final snowfield from getting too hard, so we were able to kick steps and pat ourselves on the back for not bringing crampons and ice axes.  Yeah team.  Secor's description didn't give us a lot of beta:
"This route climbs the prominent northeast buttress.  Approach the toe of the buttress from the south shore of Hungray Packer Lake.  Follow the buttress to the summit.  The crux is about halfway up, where a thin crack leads to a slight overhang."
- R.J. Secor, The High Sierra 3rd Edition, pg 293
Elphinston Buttress started in cracks on the sunny face.
We found great cracks just left of the buttress crest.  On Pitch 4, about 500' up, Chris led a 5.10+ thin crack up and over the bulge to a 10b/c finger finish (the crux, we think).  He gained the edge of the buttress and had to traverse left about 30' or so to build an anchor.  I followed up wearing the belay pack - our shoes, 3.5L of water, and a belay jacket. I climbed through the crux fine, but was a bit flamed out at the finish.  I could see Chris' belay off to my left, but the rope ran straight up. I assumed that a directional was somewhere above me. So I pulled the yellow alien, tried the moves a few times and went for it, but sagged off.

First I fell about 6', but then I started to accelerate. I realized something was very wrong - I could hear Chris yelling something. I think I started yelling too. After about 15', the rope came tight, and my momentum suddenly shifted left and I continued to pick up speed and rocket towards an open corner. I realized that this was really, really going to hurt.

Chris leading Pitch 1.  This was the last photo we took on the trip.
I slammed into a corner back-first, the pack taking most of the impact. It knocked the wind out of me, and I did my best gold-fish impersonation to start breathing again. The pain between my shoulder blades was incredible - and as I started breathing again I couldn't help but start hyperventilating from the pain. Chris was yelling down for me, but I couldn't answer. I knew I had to slow down my breathing before I passed out, but I couldn't, but I had to but I couldn't and...

I woke up hanging up-side down, vaguely remembering a warm, pleasant dream, but still in a lot of pain. My 10-scale for pain, where the nurse asks you to rate it on a 1-10, had just been reset.  I'd never been in so much pain before that I blacked out.  I puked in pain when I shattered my leg in 2002, but at least I had stayed conscious.  Now the pain kept ripping control of my breath away from me.  I finally managed to yell loud enough for Chris to hear me.

"You OK?!"
"What's wrong?!"

That's all I could manage. Chris rigged a 5:1 and started half/hauling me while I tried to half/scramble up the 4th class terrain in the corner. When the corner reached vertical, I had to sit back and let Chris do the work. I began to get nauseous from the pain and thought I was going to pass out again, so I rigged a chest harness for myself just in case.

When Chris finally got me to the anchor, he did a quick assessment of me. My heals and right palm were already bruising, and my back, from between shoulder blades down to my lumbar, felt like it was an over-tightened corset. I couldn't help but breath short, fast, hard breaths from the pain. Chris pulled out the cell phone - but no signal. We both knew that something could be very wrong with me and we could do nothing about it. I kept picturing Steve House's desciption of his lungs collapsing after a fall in the Canadian Rockies earlier this spring.  If I was facing that, or if I had ruptured something, there was nothing we could do.  So we decided to keep moving.  Before we took off, I typed in a text message for Patsy and saved it, knowing that if it was sent out that things had turned Bad.

Trying to rappel looked scary - every way was going to suck us down into gullies filled with incredibly loose blocks. So Chris decided to continue up, hauling me through anything much harder that 5.2. We hoped to either top out and start walking down the 3rd class SW Slopes, or gain a cell signal and call for help, or both.  Four pitches and three hours later Chris down-climbed, convinced that there were too many loose blocks on the pitch to haul me through. We had tried to place a call at every pitch without any luck. We had to go down. We were still concerned for my health, but convinced that anything immediately life-threatening wasn't going to happen. Rappelling was easier, because I could keep my back straight and my arms down by my sides.  I practiced taking deep, slow breaths.

We reached snow in the gully six rappels later, leaving a trail of both cordellettes, four cams, and a lot of slings. Chris lowered me down the snowfield in two 200' pitches, and downclimbed himself. I managed to walk around the lake, with Chris giving me another haul and some short-roping over the granite hump, to our bivy site. I rested for 30 minutes while Chris packed everything up, curled up on my side on one of the thermarests, before we started hiking out - I decided that I wanted out NOW rather than wait for a rescue.  And I deleted that text message for Patsy, that I had saved earlier in the day.

It had taken us 2:45 to hike the 6 miles and 2500' elevation. It took us 4:45 to hike out. I put my headphones on, cranked the volume up, and put my head down. Chris followed along behind me, with all of our kit towering over his shoulders. When it got dark, we turned on our headlamps. By the time we reached Bishop, Chris had been rescuing me for 13 hours. It was 11:00pm, and we had left our bivy at 5:15am. My accident was around 9:30-10:00am.

I was too exhausted to deal with the hospital, so I went home and told the story to my room mates.  Vic had some Vicodin that took the edge of the discomfort, and I went to bed. Friday morning I managed to get up, with spikes of pain running up and down my back, took a shower and went to the ER. But I was pretty sure that nothing was really damaged. I had a series of x-rays taken that confirmed that, and I walked out with a prescription for Vicodin, Flexeril, and a diagnosis of "Thoracic Spinal Contusions."

So now I'm sitting around the house, watching way to much TV, trying to pace my appetite, and not get to overwhelmed with not being able to do anything.  I did go up yesterday with some friends to June Lake to cheer for Annie Trujillo, who ran her first triathlon today. I feel better tonight than I did 24 hours ago. And I expect to feel better in another 24 hours too.

In hindsight, Chris could have warned me about the potential for the pendulum. And I should have simply aided through the finish of that pitch. I am extraordinarily lucky that I impacted the corner as I did. Anything else would have broken bones. Or worse. A lot worse. But Chris rescued me - no doubt about that either. I only know a handful of people I can trust like I trusted Chris to pull me out of this. And he did it.
Another lesson learned - I have to take training more seriously.  If I was a stronger climber, I could have moved right through this without any incident.  But I haven't taken training seriously since last fall.  This is a lesson I could have paid a lot more for.